Airport Breaches Can Happen Anywhere

This week’s case of a 15-year-old stowaway has airport officials across the country considering if a serious security breach could happen at their installations.

by Mike Hendricks, McClatchy News Service / April 25, 2014
Kansas City International Flickr/Jason Cupp

A teenager scales an airport security fence, clambers into a jet’s wheel well and flies away undetected until the plane reaches Hawaii.

This week’s case of the 15-year-old stowaway has airport officials across the country considering whether something like that, or perhaps an even more serious security breach, could happen at their installations.

And like other colleagues elsewhere, officials at Kansas City International Airport say the answer is “yes.” It could just as easily have happened here.

“It could happen anywhere, at any airport,” said Lezley Mix, the airport’s security coordinator.

This despite the hundreds of closed-circuit television cameras that are focused on nearly every corner of the Kansas City airport’s operations area.

And even with 4,000 employees trained to be on the lookout for and challenge possible intruders, as well as three police agencies that make random patrols around the airport’s perimeter, no security system is foolproof, Mix said.

A reporter this week even found a few places where utility boxes and other features might make it easier to hop the fence.

It’s too early to tell whether the case of the teenager climbing the fence at San Jose International Airport will lead to new security measures at U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration only makes recommendations about airport perimeter security, leaving it up to local authorities to adapt them to their own unique circumstances, a TSA spokesman said.

Yet in the eight years she’s been in her job, Mix said, only twice has someone climbed the fence at KCI.

“Both times they were detected and arrested,” Mix said.

The first was several years ago, when a drunk man climbed out of his car and over the fence for reasons unknown.

Then last month, a man eluding police scaled a 10-foot-high section of airport fence and was caught two hours later trying to escape through the locked airfield-side doors of Terminal B.

From a security standpoint, there’s a lot of area to keep watch over.

Three-fourths of KCI’s 10,200 acres is farm land, a buffer zone between noisy jet engines and the nearest residential areas. That ground and the cattle that graze on it fall outside the remaining 2,285 acres, where nearly 18 miles of security fence surrounds the terminals, runways, aprons and grassland.

Three strands of barbed wire are strung across the top of chain-link fence sections that range from 7 to 10 feet tall. Here and there along the two-lane black-top roads that the reporter drove this week skirting the airport’s south and western edges, bright red signs warn passers-by to keep out.

Parking is forbidden on airport land outside the fence, to the chagrin of aviation fans known as plane spotters, who stop anyway to watch and take pictures of the aircraft that fly over head.

“A police officer chased me off from the south side,” said Bruce Leibowitz of Flightline Aviation Media in Jackson, Miss., recounting his visit to KCI some years ago. “I’m not sure how he knew I was there, or if he was on normal patrol.”

Hard to say. Kansas City airport police, the Kansas City Police Department and the Platte County sheriff’s department regularly patrol the airport’s perimeter.

But so, too, is the airport under intense video surveillance by its security staff. Thanks to a federal grant, the airport will soon complete a $9 million security and communications upgrade that will boost the number of cameras from 600 to nearly 1,000.

The bulk of those cameras, naturally, are mounted in and around the terminals and in areas where aircraft taxi, take off, land or park.

But some also are trained on even the airport’s farthest reaches, at the fence line surrounding the aircraft operations area (AOA).

“We have some cameras that can see most of the AOA,” Mix said. “Most, but not all.”

There aren’t all that many blind spots. Yet even with all those cameras, there’s no guarantee that anyone will be watching the particular camera that picks up an intruder, even if a fleeting image does appear on the 26-screen video wall. Only some of the newest cameras in areas with keyless entries will trigger an alarm when a security breach is detected.

In San Jose, the teen stowaway climbed the fence in an area without camera coverage, but an image thought to be him was captured closer to the airplanes. Problem was, no was watching that camera at the time, and the video recording was discovered only after the plane landed in Hawaii.

That’s why KCI and other airports depend on other strategies to back up the camera system. Flight controllers in the tower at KCI, for instance, keep an eye out for intruders.

“They always call us and tell us if they see anything hinky,” Mix said.

Likewise, the thousands of airport personnel with access to the restricted areas go through regular security training. The main message: Report anything strange and challenge anyone without a badge.

“ ‘Security is everyone’s business’ is what you hear when you start here,” said KCI spokesman Joe McBride.

To make sure that message takes hold, airport security officials will occasionally run tests.

Mix and her staff might lean a ladder against the fence, with a blanket over the barbed wire, then see how many minutes it takes for someone to notice. Typically, not many, she said.

Still, she acknowledged some of the security system’s shortcomings after a reporter for The Star discovered at least three places along the fence where someone aiming to climb it could get a boost:

  • Three transformer boxes next to a fence along Mexico City Avenue would cut the climb so that even a chunky climber could hoist him- or herself over.
  • Similarly, steel piping a few feet high surrounds natural gas pipes by a fence on the airport’s eastern edge.
  • Electrical conduit attached to posts adjoining a security fence at the Kansas City air cargo facility could provide some help.

Federal regulations imposed after the 9/11 attacks require airports to have a “clear zone” on either side of their security fences.

At KCI that zone is a minimum of 4 feet, although the ideal is at least 10, Mix said.

The transformer boxes and the piping protecting the gas pipes are closer than 4 feet. But because both were there before the regulations took effect, they were grandfathered in, she said.

“So we pay extra attention to those areas,” she said, “because we can’t take transformers out, or at least cheaply.”

The conduit, on the other hand, appeared to have been jerry-rigged to provide electrical outlets for some purpose not immediately apparent. Mix said she would have a look.

Numbers at KCI:

  • 10,200 total acres.
  • 2,285 acres surrounded by security fence.
  • 18 miles of security fence.
  • 600 cameras in place; soon to be nearly 1,000.
  • 26 screens on security video wall.

©2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)